Trojans will appear in the championship game
Entering the season, Kennedy's football team had question marks all over the field.
The Trojans, 2A champions in 2018 and runners-up in 2019, lost most of their key players from a team that went 5-1 in the spring. The offense had to replace three linemen, the entire backfield and the bulk of the receiving corps.
"It's pretty much all new guys at the skill spots," coach Joe Panuke said.
The new cast, though, has been more than up to the challenge. Second-seeded Kennedy (11-1) will play in the 2A final for the third consecutive postseason when it meets No. 4 Coquille (9-1) on Saturday, Dec. 4. The Trojans are the first 11-man team to make three consecutive finals since Sherwood appeared in four straight in 5A from 2010 to 2013.
The high expectations are part of the program's fabric under Panuke, who has compiled a 68-19 record in eight years at Kennedy, including 37-5 in the last four seasons.
"I think they see the classes before them, how they prepare and how they go week to week, working on getting better at the little things," Panuke said. "It's not realistic to expect to be in the state championship game every year, but we preach doing the little things every week correctly. Things that will win or lose ballgames real quick."
The only blemish on Kennedy's record this season is a 34-28 home loss to reigning state champion Heppner in Week 4. In that game, the Trojans led 21-7 in the second quarter and were driving for more points when senior quarterback Riley Cantu suffered a dislocated thumb on his non-throwing hand and left the game for good.
The Trojans couldn't overcome the absence of Cantu, who also leads the defense from the secondary.
"It was a good growing point for us," Panuke said. "We talked about, 'Your main guy goes out, you've got to step up and keep going.'"
Kennedy has responded with eight consecutive wins, all by at least 20 points. In the playoffs, the Trojans rolled past Nestucca 38-0, Gaston 50-16 and Lakeview 21-0.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Cantu has been steady at quarterback, throwing for at least one touchdown in every game, including two in each of the last six games. For the season, he has thrown for 1,506 yards and 24 touchdowns with two interceptions. He also has rushed for 274 yards and 10 scores.
"He's an incredible athlete," Panuke said of Cantu. "He's very smart and has a very strong arm. He doesn't make very many mistakes. He doesn't try to force things in with his arm strength. He's a team leader for us."
Sophomore Elijah Traeger and junior William Schaecher are getting most of the carries at tailback. Traeger, projected to be the team's next quarterback, has rushed for 788 yards and 14 touchdowns. Schaecher has run for 495 yards and seven scores.
"Schaecher is more of a bruiser. He sees his blocks and just kind of slams in there, runs really hard," Panuke said. "Elijah has great vision and cuts back. He's a taller, leaner guy."
Juniors Owen Bruner (23 catches, 540 yards, nine touchdowns) and Luke Beyer (25 catches, 457 yards, eight touchdowns) have stepped up as the team's top receivers. Their emergence is typical of how the Trojans have responded this season.
"We had some guys that we knew had talent, but we hadn't seen them perform on Friday night yet," Panuke said. "We were anxious to see what they'd do. I shouldn't say they've exceeded our expectations, but these guys really have performed well when it was their chance to shine."
The line has jelled behind junior tackles Briggs Snell (6-2, 250) and Matt Hopkins (6-2, 255), third-year starters. Sophomore center Dominic Beyer and senior guards Mario Ponce and Jose Nunez are first-year starters.
The defense is holding opponents to 8.1 points per game, recording four shutouts. Sophomore middle linebacker Isaac Berning is the team's leading tackler.
"Our defense has been causing two or three turnovers a game, and that gives our offense a short field," Panuke said. "Our offense can be pretty explosive, so give them a short field, we can put a lot of points on the board pretty quick."
To win their second state championship Saturday, the Trojans must deal with Coquille senior running backs Gunner Yates and Brock Willis. Yates has rushed for 1,815 yards in eight games, including 129 yards in an 8-6 semifinal win over Heppner, ending the Mustangs' 29-game winning streak.
"Those two backs, they're talented guys," Panuke said. "Yates has next-level speed. We've got to gang-tackle him before he can get going, because he can take it to the house in a heartbeat."
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